Norah Carlin Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Norah Carlin

What do we mean by ...?

Working class

(July 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 78, July/August 1985, p. 25.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NOTHING is more fundamental to the politics of the Socialist Workers Party than the working class, because only the working class can get rid of capitalist society and bring about socialism. This was the central point of Marx’s theory, and since Marx it has always been a major concern of ruling class ideology to deny it.

Within the labour movement itself, there are reformists who may believe that the working class will benefit from socialism, but deny that workers can act as a class to bring it about. Today even many people who call themselves Marxists claim that the idea of working class revolution is outdated, and some even say that the working class is disappearing.

Opponents of Marxism have always found it useful to define the working class in ways that make it seem that Marx was wrong about working class revolution. It is necessary to say very clearly what we mean by the working class, and what we do not mean, because the term is used in so many ways that have nothing to do with Marxism.

It is often said, for example, that the working class is defined by a set of attitudes. A recent letter in the London Evening Standard from a businessman carried this to its furthest extreme. Class, he wrote, is ‘due to an upward-looking suspicion.’ Workers on the factory floor perpetuate it by refusing to trust or be friends with managers like himself. ‘Class’, he concluded, ‘is the observation of the workers, not the managers.’ According to this view, class divisions, like fairies, would just disappear if only workers would stop believing in them!

Values and lifestyle?

More seriously, most sociology defines class as a set of values, a whole outlook on life which distinguishes the working class from others. So we read, for example, that working class people spend money as soon as they get it, do not think ahead, and are not ambitious to plan a career for themselves but regard work as an unpleasant necessity.

But, in so far as working class people do have some or all of these ‘values’, they are a consequence of the conditions they live in – low pay, insecurity and bad working conditions – rather than something existing only in their heads.

In quite different quarters, it is even fashionable to define the working class by their ignorance. The Class War anarchists, for example, argue that socialists cannot appeal to the working class because they talk about Marxist theory, or know what happened in history – some of us even discuss art and literature! Real working class people, they claim, just say Bollocks to all that.

Some Marxists do cut themselves off from the working class by their academic approach, which seems to make theory the exclusive property of experts with a couple of philosophy degrees. It is also true that the way most working class people are educated denies them any real understanding of the world, limits their ability to express themselves (especially in writing) and deprives them of art and literature.

But it is surely an insult to the working class to suggest that they find their true identity by remaining ignorant and inarticulate. Gut reactions might take you as far as smashing up the Henley regatta or hating opera, but to smash a whole social system and a state knowledge and understanding are necessary.

If the working class is not defined by ideas (or lack of them), it is sometimes defined by lifestyle. There is often nostalgia for the way working class people lived 50 or 60 years ago: a lifestyle of poverty, when neighbours borrowed cupfuls of flour or sugar, working class homes had no modern conveniences, and holidays consisted of the occasional trip to the seaside.

Nowadays supermarkets, hire purchase, television and a fortnight on the Costa Brava are more likely to be part of the definition of a working class lifestyle. These things are often disparaged, though it is hard to see why, as they are (however shoddy in many cases) material gains for the working class. The main problem is, however, that any definition of the working class by lifestyle concentrates on what people buy (or can’t afford to buy) rather than on what they produce.

It is production, not ideas or lifestyle, that lies at the heart of the Marxist definition of the working class. We can only know what the working class is by looking at the relations of production in capitalist society. This is a society in which one class owns the means of production – factories, machinery, raw materials and so on – and another, the working class, produces the goods. Workers in capitalist society sell their labour power and are paid wages for it, at a level which allows the capitalist to make a profit as well as enabling the workers to buy the necessities of life.

Workers do not control the conditions they work in, and they do not at any point own what they produce. A self-employed carpenter who makes a table may sell it or keep it for himself; but a worker at Thorns who tried to take home a television set for her family would get the sack. The whole class system revolves around these central facts, though it is obviously not limited to manufacturing industry.

For workers not only produce the goods in our society, they supply services as well. Some of these services are directly related to production, to capitalist investment, or to the sale of goods. Office typists, bank clerks and checkout girls are as much part of the working class as factory workers.

Other services are less directly related to production but still essential to the system: transport of goods and people, for example. All wage earners who provide these services are part of the working class. So, too, are the majority of people who work in public services such as health, education and welfare. Their services keep the whole society going, and their wages are, like factory workers’ wages, enough to keep them at the same standard of living as the rest of their class. Dustmen, nurses and home helps are part of the working class, no less than miners or steelworkers.

The working class also includes many individuals who are not actually working for wages: children and housewives, for example, who depend on an employed workers’ wages. Unemployed and retired workers are also part of the working class, because at other times in their lives they have depended or will depend on earning wages for a living.

White, male and skilled?

The self-employed are not part of the working class, for reasons touched on above. Neither are managers, who make decisions and give orders on behalf of the ruling class. This is true whether managers are the offspring of bosses themselves, or have ‘risen’ from the factory floor, because it is not your parents’ position that defines class, but your own (though young people who have not yet started work must surely belong to their parents’ class).

Most professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, belong – like the self-employed and managers – to the middle classes. The position of teachers is perhaps more ambiguous, especially at the higher levels of the profession. A university is traditionally supposed to be a corporation of scholars; but the mass of primary and secondary school teachers are employed like any other skilled workers and have as little control over their working conditions as most office workers.

The Marxist definition of the working class is far from narrow, and certainly not limited to skilled white male workers, as Ken Livingstone and the ‘soft left’ are now claiming. Even the hard core of the working class, workers in manufacturing industry (the core because they are the model, hard because they are potentially the most powerful) are very far from being all white, male and skilled. Workers in public and private services – without whose labour also capitalist society would collapse – certainly include only a minority who are all three of these things.

A sociologist or a market researcher carrying out a survey could find many different values and a number of different lifestyles among the working class. A socialist trying to build a union or a party would find many different levels of class consciousness. But what defines the working class is none of these things. It is the material facts of the work they do and the wages they earn.

Norah Carlin Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 16 October 2019